The Evolution of the Campus Novel

niceworkOne of the most interesting sessions at our recent University Book Festival was a talk by the author, David Lodge, on the Evolution of the Campus Novel.  Those of you who know me well will be aware that I had the privilege of being taught by David and that I am as great an admirer of him as a teacher as I am a novelist, so this was one event I certainly wasn’t going to miss.

Although they weren’t his first novels, it was David Lodge’s Campus Novels, Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work that really brought him to general attention.  Centred in and around Rummidge University, no one who worked or studied on our campus had any doubt as to which institute of higher learning he was really writing about and those of us who were students read eagerly to see what insights we could glean about the private lives of our tutors, not to mention the grimy revelations about faculty politics.

Talking about the history of the genre, Lodge made the point that it was very much a post World War II phenomenon.  Although there were novels set in and around universities prior to that date, they were, for the most part, either about student life or mysteries of one sort or another.  For Lodge, one of the defining factors of the Campus Novel is that its subject and point of view is that of the university staff rather than that of the students.  He spoke about early American examples, such as Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe and Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution both published in the early 1950s, but pointed out that the term Campus wasn’t used in the UK until the establishment of the University of East Anglia in 1963 and that the major English examples all came later, following on from the great expansion of university education in the 1960s.

It was this expansion and the consequent opportunity for professional writers to join the staff of the growing number of universities that Lodge saw as one of the major factors in the rise of the genre.  Novelists need to create a world in which their fictions can exist and suddenly they found themselves with a ready made world around them.  It isn’t a coincidence that most Campus Novels are set in Faculties of the Arts or Humanities; this was the microcosm of the world in general that their authors found themselves inhabiting and many of the characters and situations they met there were ripe for exploration.

Inevitably, the question arose as to whether or not any of the characters the reader meets in these novels were based on real people.  There was great controversy when McCarthy’s book was published as several colleagues or ex-colleagues felt that she had used the novel to settle old scores.  Lodge insists that in his case the only such instance is the character of Morris Zapp in Changing Places, who is based on his great friend Stanley Fish.  I found that fascinating.  There may have been many objections when McCarthy’s book was published but I wonder how those same people would have felt had they been left out?  I ask this because I know several people who are ‘proud’ to claim that they were the inspiration for one or other of Lodge’s characters and I’ve actually worked with two who were convinced that they were the real Philip Swallow.  They wear their fictional status as a badge of distinction.  What Lodge did do was to ‘invent’ two new Universities which now actually exist, University College, Limerick and the University of Gloucester.

Another question raised was whether or not the Campus Novel travelled and Lodge was pretty clear that he thought it was just an Anglo-American phenomenon.  For the most part European Universities are not designed as campus institutions and it is that sense of living and working within a closed community that is central to the genre’s being.  And, also, he claimed that the European Academy was much more concerned to preserve their dignity than was the case in most British or American Universities.  The prevalent tone of the Campus Novel is either comical or satirical and therefore perhaps not to the taste of our European neighbours.

One of the best things about a talk like this is that you come away with a list of titles to add to your tbr pile.  Having spent most of my adult life in and around either college or university campuses I love this genre.  As well as McCarthy and Jarrell other authors mentioned included Malcolm Bradbury, Robertson Davies, Rebecca Goldstein, Francine Prose and Amanda Cross.  Bradbury and Cross I’ve read but the others are all just waiting to be explored.  Despite the fact that I have little enough time to read the novels Lodge suggested, if you have other authors you would like to add to the list I would be more than grateful.


38 thoughts on “The Evolution of the Campus Novel

  1. I haven’t really although I remember an early Dalziel/Pascoe that is a highly entertaining campus crime novel – An Advancement Of Learning. I haven’t got round to the famous Lodge novels but have enjoyed Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating People Is Wrong and the extraordinary The History Man. Reading through the UK or US campus novel comprehensively might give a fascinating social history. Just remembered… The Secret History.

    1. I think ‘The History Man’ was the one that really started it off in the UK, especially after it was broadcast on television. We had quite a discussion about ‘The Secret History’ because you could argue that it doesn’t met the requirements being more about the students than the staff.

  2. A very useful list in the Wikipedia entry on Campus novels- on it was Jane Smiley’s excellent agricultural college novel Moo and many others.

  3. I very much enjoyed Lodge’s campus novels and Moo by Jane Smiley was excellent at the time. I think Donna Tartt’s The Secret History would fit the description – more of a mystery – but campus life is definitely the setting. Moo is definitely a satire of the times –

    Yes, that Wikipedia list has many excellent examples – the one I read most recently is The Art of Fielding.

    1. I was just saying to Ian, Becky, that we questioned whether or not ‘The Secret History’ fitted in, given that it was more about students than staff. I haven’t read the Smiley but must do so soon as I’ve enjoyed everything that I have read by her.

      1. I think an argument could be made that The Secret History fits even though it is focused on the students. After all, it was the professor who brought them all together and created the little group and their desire to pursue a Dionysian experience. The professor is always lurking just off stage.

        1. Someone mentioned it in the discussion, but Lodge said he hadn’t read it so couldn’t make a judgment. I’m still not convinced. It doesn’t have the comic/satiric element.

  4. Ooh please publish the list here! I just recently read Barbara Pym’s “An Academic Question” which fits, and “The Art of Fielding” is next on my TBR, so even more interesting now! “Moo” is marvellous and due a re-read soon. I wasn’t taught by Prof. Lodge but did go to guest lectures by him, and met him after an event at the MAC in the early 1990s about adapting his books for TV, and again a few years ago after a talk in the English Dept. He was interested to hear my partner is a neuroscientist and recommended him to start with “Thinks …” out of his own novels. He read “Changing Places” instead. Erm, because I made him.

    1. One of David Lodge’s great gifts is to make anyone who speaks in a seminar or meets him at an event to feel as if they really important. I learnt as much about how to run seminar sessions from him as I did about literature and I’m not belittling what I learnt in that area. I’ll give it another week and then put a list together for posting.

  5. You are so lucky to have been taught by David Lodge – I’ve read and enjoyed nearly all his books over the years.

    I love campus novels too. Two US ones that haven’t been mentioned so far that I enjoyed are Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, and the rather brilliant Straight Man by Richard Russo. Back in England, I enjoyed Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds set in Cambridge. With many of the Inspector Morse novels being set in the colleges, they often have a bit of a campus feel about them too even though they’re crime.

    1. Heavens, I’d forgotten Hearts and Minds. It’s absolutely spot on. I passed it all round the department and all the women there really identified. That definitely has to go on the list.

  6. Sounds like a fun talk. And how cool that you were in one of Lodge’s classes! Does he still remember you so you could go up and be friendly and show off to your friends? 😉 Would The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie qualify as a campus novel?

    1. I think he’s more used to seeing me as staff now, Stefanie. I don’t think you could include The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie simply because it is about the girls as much as it about the staff and they aren’t at university level. The latter is really important.

  7. I haven’t read nearly enough campus novels compared to how much I love the idea of them. David Lodge has been on my list for ages. Can I add May Sarton’s The Small Room to your list? I think it counts as a campus novel, and I liked it a lot!

    (Oo, and to your point about the campus novel being a microcosm, do you accept a subset genre that’s about teachers at boarding schools? Not exactly a campus novel but still rather close.)

    1. I don’t think we can accept the teachers because the campus setting isn’t large enough but I agree it’s a very interesting genre in its own right. I haven’t read that particular Sarton. I love her journals but I’m less well read where her novels are concerned. I shall certainly add it to the list and to my personal tbr list.

  8. Lucky you! I’ve loved David Lodge’s books (not read them all though). Other books came to my mind – C P Snow’s the Masters, which I read many years ago, when I was at school (am thinking of re-reading it) and American novels such as Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety and Dan De Lillo’s White Noise (maybe not quite right??)

    1. This list is really browning, Margaret. I can’t comment on the De Lillo because I haven’t read it. What a good excuse to add yet another volume to the tbr list.

  9. Lots of great suggestions above! I think everyone got all the titles I was thinking of. One more, sort of: Susan Choi’s My Education. But only the first half or so of that book has a campus setting. Are you familiar with Joanne Dobson’s campus mysteries? The first one is called Quieter Than Sleep, and they are very good.

    1. I’ve not read that although the title rings a bell. I wonder if the television version is available on DVD? My first memories of Bill Nighy are of his playing Sam Gamgee in the BBC radio version of ‘The Lord of the Rings’. It’s coloured my view of everything he’s done since 🙂

  10. I love campus novels! So many mentioned here that I’ve really enjoyed – I’d second Straight Man by Richard Russo, and The Men’s Room by Anne Oakley. There’s Beast by Joyce Carol Oates, that’s a nasty little tale, and its complete opposite, Uncertain Terms by Claire Chambers (though I think that’s more about the students). I didn’t really enjoy Jane Smiley’s Moo, which I found a bit slow and stilted, and I wasn’t so enamoured of Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, either, which reads like all the campus novels you’ve ever come across put in the blender together. Oh and Stegner’s Crossing to Safety is absolutely marvellous and probably on my top ten list of all time greats.

    1. I’ve been meaning to get into Joyce Carol Oates work for sometime so perhaps that would be a good place to start and I’m clearly going to have to read the Oakley. But Stegner is a name I don’t know at all and if you recommend it that highly then I’m off to look for a copy now. What is it about Campus Novels? Those of us who have worked there don’t seem to be able to enough of them. You’d have thought we would have had our fill. Perhaps we just like the reassurance of seeing others suffer!

  11. I love love love the idea of Campus novels. And I’m not sure I’ve read one. Yet. I will definitely have to read some of David Lodge’s novels as well as some of the others mentioned here.

      1. Well we don’t have real Campi here in Denmark but I spent years at university and at my university, all the subjects was taught in the same huge building. And now I work at a Design school which is at university level as well so it is familiar at least.

    1. I think that was the first one that most of us became aware of, Lee-Anne. Inevitably I love the Lodge books because I know where he is writing about, but I also love the Amanda Cross novels. Academia and crime combined is my idea of heaven.

      1. In terms of campus novels, you should probably start with ‘Rebel Angels’, which is the first in the Cornish Trilogy. I think you’d enjoy the mediaeval stuff lurking in it too. I think I want to reread it now.

  12. I started with The Cunning Man – it’s part of a series but it’s a stand-alone, too. Then I went on with The Cornish Trilogy and then Fifth Business, the first book in The Deptford Trilogy. I rather think that Rebel Angels (#1 in the Cornish Trilogy) would be an excellent place to start.

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